What Is It About Women, Madness and Supermarkets?
My book group recently chose two works whose titles evoke grocery store hysteria: Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, a collection of short stories by Hilma Wolitzer, and Crying in H Mart, a memoir by Michelle Zauner. In both, a key character finds herself in a supermarket aisle white-knuckling her shopping cart and sobbing sloppy, uncontrollable tears.
This wasn’t the first time this year I’ve come across such breakdowns. In season two of the television series This Is Us, which my family binged years after its release, post-partum Rebecca goes to pieces in a Giant Eagle when another shopper snags the last yellow onion. And in Mary Beth Keane’s best-selling novel Ask Again, Yes potential killer Anne succumbs to full-blown psychosis in the deli line at Food King.
What is it about women, madness and supermarkets? Do shopping baskets turn us into basket cases? Or do writers default to supermarkets as the most public spaces women haunt, so that when we’re actually haunted, it’s a tidy backdrop for our woes? And, I wondered, was there anything in my own quintessential American Jewish upbringing that could offer any clues?
I’ve had my own 40-year love-hate relationship with grocery stores. When I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, my mother, Judy, stopped at our local SuperFresh nearly every afternoon, often with me in tow. She said she liked the freshest produce or that she’d forgotten a key ingredient for dinner or an Entenmann’s coffee cake for a holiday dessert.
Watching her do this day after day triggered in me an adolescent resolve. I vowed that when it was my turn, I’d be one of those organized moms who never shopped more than once a week. I figured that if I could shave down hours spent at the supermarket, I could have kids and a big career, whereas my mother mostly just had kids, after she left her full-time teaching position.
My plan worked, for a while. I became a busy corporate executive with four children. I even married a guy who saw my grocery store ambition and raised it. As our family grew, he could amass a haul from Whole Foods that would last 10 days. Such heady efficiency! I was living out my teenage vow.
Then one day, a colleague who’d taken a break from her own big career mentioned that every afternoon, she stopped at the Giant with her teenage daughter on the way home from school. She laughed out loud that her daughter hadn’t yet figured out that she did this only to get her to talk about her day. Apparently, the girl clammed up in the car, but became downright chatty amid the Cheetos and Cheerios.
I was stunned. Had I opened up to my mother as we strolled through those aisles all those years ago, even as I scorned the whole enterprise? More importantly, I wondered if my calculus had been wrong all along. Perhaps it was my mom, and not I, who’d had the proper regard for supermarkets.
Gingerly, I returned to the Giant. I tried to get my kids, who were all teenagers by then, to accompany me, but having probably absorbed my disdain, they usually passed. So on my way home from the office, I allowed myself to dawdle in the aisles and even developed a little swagger with my cart, steering purposefully like I was hunting on the savannah, plucking new foodstuffs to delight the family.
Then—in an even bigger snub to efficiency—I started driving 40 minutes each way to a kosher supermarket because my kids, who attended a Jewish day school, which I had not, started requesting kosher meat. The boxes of Lieber’s Strawberry Jel and cans of Streit’s Mushroom & Barley soup made me feel like I’d teleported back to the kitchen of my grandmother Ruth. Had I likewise marginalized her by my lack of interest in food shopping and never learning the difference between a rib roast and a London broil?
And that’s when it dawned on me. The reason artists today have their characters melt down in supermarkets is because lots of women are working out their mother-related complexities amid the meat and potatoes. Michelle Zauner was mourning her mother (and regretting her teenage rebellions) when she broke down in H Mart. Rebecca on This Is Us was grieving a stillborn triplet when she came undone about the onion.
While my career-versus-family conflict wasn’t nearly so wrenching, it was mother-centered just the same. My mother became a symbol of the choice of motherhood instead of career, but I’d wanted both. In my head, the supermarket was the locus of that painful choice, the place that made me feel small for either not being professional enough, or not sufficiently nurturing.
Writers who give their characters these very Publix breakdowns know this supermarket superpower. It is the liminal space in which nourishment is potential but not yet real, where the air is thick with memory, identity and fearsome female choices about whether, what and how to love.
So if you see a woman weeping at Wegmans, give her some space. She might be missing a mother, a child or an as-yet-unattained part of herself. Attention, shoppers.
E. Kinney Zalesne is a former Microsoft executive and the co-author of the best-selling book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.